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The Diver Who Loved to Read

Neither Fight Nor Flight

 

Anthony Anderson makes mincemeat of class distinctions.

            He was a high school dropout from Chicago’s roughest schools whose life was saved by joining the navy. But he wasn’t raised in poverty by uneducated parents – his relatives worked for the Board of Education in Chicago. His mother was an accountant with Blue Cross who loved math and drilled it into Anthony. By age four he could add and subtract, and was considered so smart he started first grade a year early.

            He now lives in West Seattle. He owns a nice starter home with his partner, Shelbi. They drive a Land Rover (with a rear compartment big enough for their two Great Danes) and eat protein-heavy diets and can talk about all the new restaurants and books – like any other bourgeois bohemian couple. Very up-and-coming middle class.

            Anthony’s job, however is in the marine construction business. He works the night shift on the retrofit for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. He is a commercial diver, one of the few black divers in the country. He puts on a dry suit and a huge helmet and descends 150 feet to the bottom of Puget Sound for four hours at a time, where he operates an underwater blow torch on the new footings for the suspension bridge while battling the currents. For such dangerous, specialized work, the money is very good. It’s far more than his job – it’s his calling, his passion, his dream come true, and it didn’t come easily.

            Just three years ago, he was drifting, unemployed. He lived out of a Chevy Suburban parked on the street. Then he slept on a mattress in a guy’s garage over on Pigeon Hill. Even then, he knew what his calling was. He’d been to dive school in Seattle. He’d done his two-year apprenticeship down in Louisiana working on oil rigs. But he couldn’t break in to union work in the Northwest. Knowing your calling is not to be confused with succeeding at it. The last three years, he’s learned what it takes to get from the former to the latter. He can’t quite put it into words, like Stephen Lyons – or can he?

            Tentatively, he summarized, “It’s about confidence. With me, it’s always been about confidence. When I approach a situation with confidence, I lean in, I figure it out, I succeed. When I lack confidence, I pull back and withdraw. My confidence was taken away from me when I was a boy.” Sadness flashed across his eyes. A haunting memory. He said, “I remember myself being studious and inventive as a kid. Then it was snuffed out.”

            His aunt was a secretary for Reverend Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Coalition. Anthony’s elders had devoted themselves to changing the system, but in the meantime they mostly complained about it. It had an undesirable effect on young Anthony. It taught him to imitate their outrage, their finger-pointing. They tried to mold him with tough love; they tried to teach him to endure any situation, such as in ninth grade, when his mom moved in with her father and Anthony enrolled in a new high school. It was a very rough, bad school. Being new and a year younger, Anthony was repeatedly bullied and beat up by the older students. His Mom met twice with the school counselor to discuss her son’s discipline problems, but she wouldn’t transfer him to another school. “You’ve got to learn to stick it out,” she told him.

            Instead, the message he got was, she simply doesn’t care about me.

            He skipped school the next week, hoping to avoid another beating. He got one anyway, when his Mom found out he was hiding at home rather than sitting in class. His grandfather and aunt disciplined him physically – to teach him the most important lesson they could – you can’t skip school. He remembers sitting by the window, watching them come up the walkway, knowing what he was in for. (I’m saving you the details.)

“That was my giving-up-on-them point,” Anthony said. “In a way, it was liberating. When suddenly my grandfather was in on it, for the first time I understood why my mom and aunt were always disciplining me that way. Because he taught it to them. And it had been taught to him, generation down to generation, certainly all the way back since slavery. I couldn’t forgive them, but it helped to have this understanding.”

            Six years in the navy gave him more perspective. Teamed with guys from all over the country, with a skinny white guy from Texas as his bunkmate, Anthony learned that the way he was raised was only one way, not the only way. “It broke down the untruths I grew up with,” he said. They traveled to Japan, Italy, Cuba, and throughout the United States.

Is the contribution the armed services makes by broadening young people’s horizons underappreciated? It certainly was by me, when I started this book. My father was a marine, but when he enrolled at eighteen he had other choices. A lot of young people don’t have those other choices. If they’re not going to college, there’s really no other way out – no other way to transcend their circumstances. My interviews and correspondence with a dozen grateful young soldiers made this clear. Didn’t they complain about the low pay and regimented bureaucracy? Absolutely. But they were still grateful. As Anthony Anderson said, “If I didn’t go into the military, I would have been a broke, homeless pothead.”

One day two navy divers came to Anthony’s unit and talked about what they did. Days later he caught a special on the Discovery Channel about deep sea diving, and he could see what those two guys had described. From that day on, Anthony was hooked. He requested to become a navy diver. He was still a bit of a troublemaker; his request was denied repeatedly, fueling bitterness until he finally accepted that his disobedience and unruliness had consequences. When his tour ended, he moved to Seattle for dive school.

            “What most appealed to you about it?” I asked.

            “The total concentration required. The 100% total focus, can’t-slip-up carefulness. That has always been its appeal and still is. When I focus I feel clear minded. When I don’t focus, I’ve always been haunted by a dark shadowy blur.”

            “A dark shadowy blur?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Is it something in particular?”

            “No, just a feeling, like just outside your vision.”

            After dive school he spent two years training on oil rigs in Louisiana, a right-to-work state. When he came back to Seattle, he got a job dockside but the old boys’ network wouldn’t let him into the water.

            “For a long time, I believed it was racism, just as I did when the navy denied my requests. I had been taught in my youth to see racism everywhere, including in situations where that isn’t at all what was going on. Marine construction really is an old boys’ network. It’s kind of a hazing process, but race has nothing to do with it. So much of diving can’t be taught in school. You have to earn the trust of older divers before they’ll share their knowhow. So I felt shut out. Occasionally they would test me – send me down into the currents in the dark with a torch. If you resent being tested, as I did – my attitude gave me no chance. Eventually I was laid off, and I started my downward spiral.”

            In his twenty-nine years, Anthony had never learned to earn a thing rather than wait in line for it. He’d blamed everyone but himself. When he ended up unemployed and unable to afford a place to live, an odd kind of clarity came to him. “I need to go through this,” he told himself. “I need to figure this out.” With a friend, he went kayaking on the Methow River in Central Washington. He told his friend, “just leave me out here.” He spent the next six weeks living in the woods. It wasn’t a contemplative, restorative time. He was there out of sheer stubbornness. The inclement weather drove him back to Seattle, where he slept in the Suburban and then that guy’s garage. Finally, when all the evidence was in, and obstinacy and umbrage had proven to be of no use at all, he spoke his first humbling words ever:

            “I’ve got to get some help.”

            Anthony went to the Veterans Administration Hospital. They suggested he was using alcohol and pot to deaden his senses. He didn’t deny it. He joined a group. When not there, he went to the library for shelter. There, among the endless shelves of books, a very unexpected thing happened. That bright little boy, studious and inventive, was still alive inside him, ready to come back out. Underneath all those cloaks of trained helplessness was a smart kid who loved to read. First he read everything there was to know about the science of childhood development. He read book after book on psychology, depression, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

            Then he read everything that might help him diving. “I studied it like a college course.” He put himself through a course on steel – on all the mechanical properties of different alloys, understanding for the first time what kind of steel was appropriate for what kind of job. Then he taught himself civil engineering. Then land erosion and oceanography, because some diving work required surveying erosion damage on beachheads. He also taught himself plumbing.

            “For the first time I was knowledgeable. When I went back to work, I was prepared. Having all that information in my mind – it gave me confidence.”

            His attitude was the biggest difference. “I used to have this fight-or-flight response to any conflict. Neither option served me well. Stuck on a barge, you can’t run anywhere. I learned to silence that instinct, and resolve just to work it out.”

            For example, there is a kind of class stereotyping in the trade. Some of the guys have been to college, but around the barge they slip back into a blue collar dialect. In order to be accepted as one of them, Anthony had to pretend he was the kind of southern boy they all met down in the Gulf when doing their apprenticeships. He had to stoop to ghetto talk, yo brother, when he’d never talked that way in his life and wasn’t very good at it. He hated doing it but it broke the ice and now they are getting to know the real Anthony.

            Another example has been his relationship with Shelbi, his partner. Fight-or-flight would only destroy the good thing they’ve created. “There are nights I just need to go for a drive,” he admits. “But they’re far more infrequent.” Finding each other began a new life for both of them. Shelbi married young and divorced young. Her past seems like a bad dream she once had. They’ve been given a second chance; they treasure it.

            I get it now. I get what Anthony is trying to teach me. There is no fight-or-flight at the bottom of the sea. When problems arise, they are dealt with as challenges, addressed with total concentration. Down at the bottom of the sea, Anthony is honing his coping mechanisms, honing his ability to deal with life’s frustrations. So that he can succeed as a diver yes, but also so he can hang on to his relationship, this second chance.

            You might have in your memory banks an image of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge. It’s one of the most famous disaster films ever. Taken in 1940, the grainy black and white footage captures the concrete road of the Narrows snapping like a whip in a windstorm and twisting into a semi-helix before falling into Puget Sound. The wreckage of the old bridge is apparently still down there. The bridge was rebuilt and now, sixty years later, Anthony is part of the retrofit team so that it can withstand the awesome destructive forces of nature. Just as he an Shelbi are a team learning to withstand the dark shadowy blur that would tear apart any relationship, or destroy any spirit.

            Now when I want to run from my problems, I think about Anthony, hanging on with one hand at the bottom of the sea.

            Hang on, hang on.